Wood Countertop and Tabletop Finishes

Ask 10 different people and you’ll get 10 different answers. There’s a lot of opinion out there when it comes to finishes. It’s probably because one size doesn’t fit all. Here are a few things to consider.

First, the wood tabletops and countertops that Antique Woodworks creates are not butcher block or other cutting surfaces. While our tops will inevitably get wet, care should still be taken not to let liquids sit on the surface for hours and hours.

Second, reparability is probably more important than durability with antique woods. Our belief is that things will happen to countertops as well as tabletops. Scratches, dents, and other things just happen. So, the ideal situation is one where some inevitable damage can be repaired into pleasant character.

Third, there’s always a balance between the look and the durability. In general, the glossier and heavier the finish, the more durable the finish. On the other hand, the heavier the finish, the less natural things seem to become.

Rubio Monocoat

Monocoat is in a class of products called Hard Wax Oils. They have been used in Europe for decades. Only recently have they gained popularity in the United States. Tadas Wood Flooring has a nice article comparing some top hardwax oils. Note there are links in the article to individual product reviews as well. In particular, Rubio Monocoat has a boiled linseed oil base with additional waxes and catalytic driers. It is designed to form molecular bond with the cellulose fibers in the wood. As a penetrating oil, it saturates into the wood to give a deeper, richer color. The finish dries with a nice natural satin sheen through which you can still feel the texture of the wood.

The catalytic driers solve the long-standing issue with linseed oil that it sometimes never dries. The durability of this particular product is excellent as well. The manufacturer boasts 24-hour “no visible damage” durability for water, wine, cola, and tea. Only slight damage to color/gloss with coffee, vinegar, and acetone. Finally, it’s VOC (volatile organic compound — aka smelly stuff) free and as such is environmentally friendly. If damage does occur, a single coat repair is much more convenient than a multi-coat repair. Monocoat is our finish of choice. To order, visit www.monocoat.us. We typically the Natural Oil Plus 2C with the Part B Accelerator in the Pure (Clear) color. Please mention that Antique Woodworks sent you! While Rubio has their recommended care approach and products, here is our version for product care.

Waterlox Brand Tung Oil

Tung oil is extracted from the dried nuts of the tung tree that is indigenous to China. Chinese merchants reportedly used tung oil as far back as the 14th century to waterproof and protect their wooden ships. However, pure tung oil alone is not recommended for floors, countertops, and furniture because it’s prone to water spot, will not stand up to foot traffic, and will attract dirt. Waterlox brand in particular, adds resins, mineral spirits, and other ingredients to address these issues. We have generally been very pleased with the results when using Waterlox Tung Oil, but we typically need to apply 3-5 coats to achieve a quality finish. They offer 3 levels of sheen as well as a low VOC version.

Thick Pour Epoxy

We really only mention epoxy for completeness. Epoxy is basically another word for plastic. This approach puts a thick coat of plastic on an otherwise great piece of touchable old wood. One of the things that we notice around our shop is that people want to touch and feel our tabletops and countertops. They want to feel to the wood. Epoxy makes that trade off between a very tactile experience for a very durable surface. For a restaurant or commercial bar, there’s a certain practicality to this approach. Note, it is expensive and also adds about $35/SF to the cost. With all of that said, I do have to say that we are very big fans of Entropy Resins’ Supersap line of epoxies. In addition to great performance, Entropy is unique in their use of environmentally friendly chemistry.

Mineral Oil

Mineral oil or a mineral oil and beeswax mix is used for cutting boards, butcher block counters, salad bowls, and wood utensils. In a situation where you are continually refreshing and adding finish to wood, this is the standard. People know from the beginning that the finish will wear off and expect to re-coat the surface every month or so for regular maintenance. We don’t make cutting surfaces and we don’t expect our countertops to be exposed to constant water, so this really isn’t the best finish for our products.

Marine Polyurethane

While intuitively it seems like a great way to keep water off the wood, it doesn’t have enough durability to compensate for the lack of reparability. Countertops will get dings, scratches, and other surface marks. That’s just the way it is. With poly, some of this damage will occur on just the finish layer. It can actually become more unsightly than a full ding into the wood that’s been repaired. With a polyurethane, it’s difficult to simply spot repair and get good results. With a penetrating oil, often damage can become a unobtrusive character mark.

In this discussion, the question of whether a product is considered “food safe” always comes up. While all of the finishing products that we use on countertops are considered “food safe,” that’s really not the issue. We suggest that you use a separate cutting board and that you use a plate, and not eat directly off the counter. That’s fair, isn’t it?

In conclusion, for our reclaimed wood countertops and tabletops, we recommend Rubio Monocoat, Waterlox Tung Oil, and in some isolated cases, thick epoxy.